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Donkin on Fishing - General Fishing Columns

 

Fly Fishing MacNab

Just as no two people are alike you can apply the same principle to anglers. There are those who would never kill a fish and there are those who hate to put them back. Some like to catch big bulbous carp, some like standing on a beach all night long in winter, others like working a fly on a chalk stream.

They like to argue too which probably explains the solitary nature of angling, unlike shooting and fox hunting where part of the appeal is the group dynamics in pursuits that lend themselves to showing off.

I have shot occasionally, never so much to become good at it, but just enough to know that it has as much in common with fishing as cats have with dogs. In fact I think that the analogy stands comparison.

Cats are solitary hunters that creep up on their prey. They outthink it before they pounce. Dogs, on the other hand, spend a lot of time yapping and wagging their tales, running around each other, barging and growling.

This is exactly the behaviour of the shooting party to which I have been invited for the past four years. Their gun dogs, in contrast, are fairly placid. It’s a male thing, a testosterone-loaded mix of city and country types crammed together in a Devon cottage for the weekend, where a pack ascendancy is established by a combination of arm wrestling, wit, drinking, childish pranks and – I almost forgot – shooting.

At least this year no-one brought any wallnuts to demonstrate their “skill” in breaking them on the table with their forehead. That was last year’s stunt and, even then, someone had to go one better with a hazelnut. How do you explain to your family and colleagues an egg-shaped lump on your forehead?

Fishing is about river craft and problem solving. It’s a personal thing: you and the quarry. If anything it is a study in introversion. It tends to attract the pedant and the perfectionist. Shooting is social with plenty of sound and fury. Indeed one of my shooting companions wondered if people would still do it if they took away the bang.

Apart from sharing the same hunting roots, these two pursuits are like chalk and cheese. There’s a stark finality to shooting that carries some obvious responsibilities. The shooter plays the role of executioner while the angler can play God. Do you put it back or do you knock it on the head?

These same issues can arise in shooting. I was urged to shoot a magpie on one drive but left it. Most shooters I know portray magpies as the evil murderers of songbirds. But magpies have established their niche in the ecosystem. If I don’t plan to eat something, I don’t want to kill it.

This is the cat-like ethical dilemma of the angler. Do we hunt to eat or just for the fun of it? Is it fair to stalk a living thing for sport? Cats don’t seem to worry about this. Neither do most of their owners. So neither do I. Not often, anyway.

The shooting/fishing overlap has reminded me of the John Buchan novel, John Macnab. The original challenges in the book involved poaching a red stag, a brace of grouse and a salmon from various forewarned landowners. The modern interpretation is to shoot a red deer, a brace of grouse and catch a salmon within one day.

For much of this year I have been pondering over a fly fishing Macnab. A salmon, a sea trout and a brown trout ought to be quite straightforward. But the addition of a sea bass would make it interesting.

A chat with David Pilkington, one of the instructors at the Arundell Arms in Devon, set me thinking about the feasibility. While he spends much of his time with anglers seeking sea trout and brown trout, he can also point out good bass fishing spots within half an hour’s drive of the hotel.

The problem with the Cornish and Devonshire rivers is that they don’t have strong salmon runs. It would be a tough proposition to land all four species there within 24 hours. Come summer you could start at midnight for the sea trout, catch a quick brown trout early on then nip up to the coast for school bass if you have planned it right for the tides. That would still leave the salmon.

A flight to Scotland from Exeter, or Cardiff if you were to start a bit nearer in Wales, would get you within reach of a good salmon river in plenty of time for the evening. It’s not a casual challenge because the tide patterns are crucial for sea bass. To stop any short-cutting I should also say that the fish would need to be caught from the bank.

How about it? Has anyone done this already? There’s a bottle of champagne for the best attempt I hear about and maybe a whole case for anyone who can satisfy me that they have pulled it off. I would also be interested to hear of particular strategies or alternative Macnab-like fishing challenges in other parts of the world. But there can only be one fishing Macnab and this is it: salmon, sea trout, brown trout and sea bass, caught from the bank on the fly in a single calendar day.

   
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